One evening when my kindergartner was about two years old, a friend came over and read her Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, part of Mo Willems’ charming series about a spunky, wisecracking bird. About halfway through, the protagonist, unsuccessfully trying to convince the reader that he’s so totally not tired, opens up his beak and lets loose a huge, two-page-spanning, all-caps YAWN! which my friend – childless and accustomed to reading silently – dispassionately read as a word. My daughter looked at him like something had moved in the wastebasket, then demonstrated a properly theatrical interpretation, its force so strong it straight up tipped her over.
“Dat how da pigeon yawns,” she scolded, as she righted herself and waited for him to continue.
I felt for him. I had a few years of practice under my belt at that point, and had conditioned myself not to panic when I read lines in my daughter’s books like, “And now it’s time for me to sing you my favorite song!” (in BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures), which elicit the same reaction from every person who starts to turn to the next page: Oh, crap.
But it took concerted effort to get myself comfortable with reading aloud, after years of viewing the book as an object about as social as me at a post-pandemic cocktail party. When I saw my friend bungle Willems’ directive so completely, it struck me just how far from our oral storytelling roots we’d come, how uncomfortable we’d grown with the task of bringing stories alive for even the least judgmental of audiences.
And there’s an urgent reason we might work, on a household-by-household basis, to change that. For our children, most pressingly – but for us, too.
Last month, America’s fourth and eighth graders completed their first national reading and math assessment since before the pandemic. Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tracked our children’s academic ability with a series of nationwide tests on a variety of subjects, and the last set yielded myriad depressing statistics, all gathered using pre-pandemic data. Last year’s headlines blared with one of the most alarming: 13-year-olds had posted unprecedented declines in math and reading, which Peggy Carr, the National Center for Education Statistics commissioner, labeled at the time as “a matter for national concern”.
But the stat that stuck out to me was that the percentage of children who reportedly read for fun was at a historic low. Just one in three 13-year-olds picked up a book for fun. That’s it. This, despite the fact that reading interest and ability has been linked to all sorts of wonderful things – more complex vocabulary, greater socio-emotional depth, success in school, and in life. That’s why this particular statistic was so depressing, and why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting to read to children from birth, to start laying that foundation for the miracle drug known as “loving books”. Any hope that this year’s testing – the results of which are to come out in the fall – will serve up a sunnier set of numbers seems more fantasy than reality, given that Covid has spiraled much of the intervening years.
“It’s sort of a perfect storm,” Dr John Hutton told me recently. He’s the director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s hospital, and was one of the first researchers to use fMRI technology to determine how preschoolers’ brains respond to reading. “There’s an emphasis on test scores and kindergarten readiness, and families view reading as a means to an end, and then the child gets the message that reading is hard, and not really fun.”
One “hugely important” way to flip that narrative, Hutton says? Snuggle up with a book together.
When you better understand not just the history of books and reading, but also the neurological benefits triggered by shared reading, it seems straight up silly that the activity peaks at age five. Five! Then it’s all downhill from there, according to Scholastic’s most recent Kids and Family Reading Report. Outside of religious gatherings, once we reach adulthood it seems we read to each other only in morbid settings (at a hospital sickbed), or salacious ones (Susan Sarandon reciting Walt Whitman to a tied-up Tim Robbins in Bull Durham), or ones that meld the two (see: The English Patient).
Back in the day, books were almost always read aloud, due to a few factors, including that books were expensive, literacy rates were low, and punctuation and spacing virtually nonexistent, whichmeantthatithelpedtosaysentencesoutloud.
“For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity,” writes historian Robert Darnton. “It took place in workshops, barns and taverns. It was almost always oral but not necessarily edifying.”
From a neurological perspective, though, it was and remains edifying – something Hutton has shown in his research. During shared experiences, which are particularly robust when a parent reads to a child, since the activity requires joint attention to bring the book alive, both participants experience what is called “neural synchrony” – which is just as it sounds, with brain activity mirroring itself in both brains. Higher levels of neural synchrony predict a higher level of engagement with a given stimulus, and also are connected to a greater release of oxytocin. The hormone, known as “the love drug”, is most commonly linked to childbirth – mothers get a flood of it during labor and directly afterwards, to help foster a bond between mother and child, and nursing – but also pops up when we fall in love, or during sexual arousal. The higher your oxytocin level, the more warm fuzzies you feel.
Which is why Hutton believes the thorough abandonment of shared reading as a regular practice is a missed opportunity – for children, sure, but also for us anxiety-ridden adults who are in need of all the oxytocin we can get.
“These days, there are well-characterized increases in mental health anxiety, in feelings of isolation,” he said, “which are perhaps the result of a shift in the type of neurochemistry involved in the activities we’re doing as a society now, which are focused on quick fixes.” Those frenetic videos on TikTok, the new information popping up on our news feeds, all of it serves to rattle us and tell the brain to release more cortisol, our body’s main stress hormone.
“I bet if you were measuring cortisol levels in a stressed-out parent after a week of Zoom meetings, and they sat down with their child to read a book, to laugh, to cuddle, that those levels would be significantly lower,” he said. “There is likely an effect on the stress hormones just as much as the love hormones.”
The other day, my middle daughter, now in preschool, picked up Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late from the shelf and handed it to me. I’d had a long day, but with visions of brain waves synching and surges of oxytocin flooding my body, I took a deep breath and really put my back into that yawn. She guffawed delightedly, which surprised the baby – more in the oral than aural stage of reading – to stop gumming a board book and look up. Then, wanting in on the fun, he did the unbearably cute thing he’s been doing lately: he bounced up and down on his butt in sheer joy until he tipped over. Just like the pigeon.
Yes, in various contexts, reading aloud can be seen as a magic elixir that can help us become smarter or more successful; as foreplay; as a neuro connector that will make us less anxious; as the gateway drug to scoring higher on reading tests. But it’s also fun.
Sophie Brickman is a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Times and other publications, and the author of Baby, Unplugged: One Mother’s Search for Balance, Reason, and Sanity in the Digital Age